After months of blurred photographs published on the internet and unconfirmed sightings by moonshine-swilling rednecks, one of Spain's most sought-after images has finally been captured - Gareth Bale kicking a ball.
For so long the only evidence of his existence were snaps of the stern-faced Welshman going in and out of his agent’s office and Tottenham's training ground, as well as grinning and kissing the badge of a Real Madrid shirt in the Spanish capital.
Those wholly unconvincing images aside, Bale had not been spotted plying his trade for some time.
A legion of Spanish journalists scuttled off to watch the forward sitting on a bench in Macedonia. One poor sap was sent to a bar near the home of Bale’s parents to watch last Friday’s Wales match, hoping to find hundreds of whooping supporters with the player’s name on the back of their shirts.
Instead the writer found next to nobody in the Whitchurch Rugby Club. “Two people came in, got a pint, went towards the big screen to watch the game… but started to play pool,” lamented the lonely hack, who was probably sozzled by the end of the evening.
At least there was some kind of reward for those in Cardiff on Tuesday as they saw Bale playing his first football (33 minutes' worth) for 114 days in Wales' 3-0 defeat to Serbia.
“He forgot his groin problems and came on like a flash,” gasped AS. A blow-by-blow account of everything Bale did from that moment followed, and concluded with the report of what might be an ankle knock for Real Madrid’s new signing.
After the tedious international break Carlo Ancelotti will finally get his hands on Bale in the midfielder's first training session on Wednesday afternoon.
Aside from the all-important task of coordinating hairstyles with Cristiano Ronaldo (“hair gel parting to the left or right?”), the big task will be assessing whether the 24-year-old is able to manage a few minutes in Saturday’s clash at Villarreal.
Most Real Madrid fans will have only seen highlights packages of the player’s best moments, hence the apparent fascination. Other than Premier League nuts, few will have seen Bale play every week for Tottenham - especially given the north London side's lack of regular Champions League football.
Throw in Wales's inactivity in international tournaments and it's possible to see why the most common question posed to this correspondent in Madrid tends to be: “Is Bale actually any good?”
The response follows the diplomatic line trotted out by Zinedine Zidane this week: “Today, you would have to say that a footballer is not worth this," declared the Gallic genius. "They paid €75 million for me 10 years ago and I didn’t think I was worth it,” he shrugged.
After months of speculation, weeks of getting the deal done and a fun-filled presentation day, Real Madrid are now in possession of their most expensive purchase. But the first instruction in the manual reads, 'handle with care'.
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